Tired of taxpayer subsidies? There’s a big one you’ve probably not heard about

Candidates filling out paperwork at the Republican Party of Texas headquarters in Austin on Dec. 11, 2017. Photo by Marjorie Kamys Cotera for The Texas Tribune

You would think that in Texas, a state that takes pride in individualists, all candidates for political office would be treated equally. You’d be wrong.

By law, Texas divides political candidates into three groups: 1) those selected by political parties in primary elections, 2) those selected by political parties at conventions, and 3) independent candidates.

Group 1 is the Republican and Democratic party candidates.

Group 2 are candidates from smaller “convention” parties that have qualified for ballot access by either previously receiving 5 percent of the vote in a statewide election or by expensive petition drives. In 2016, convention parties were the Libertarians and the Greens. The Libertarian Party remains on the ballot only because my campaign for Railroad Commissioner was able to squeak by with 5.28 percent of the total statewide vote. The Green Party will have to launch an expensive petition campaign if they want to appear on the ballot again.

Group 3 consists of independent candidates who must conduct expensive petition drives to get on the ballot.

Guess which group gets a taxpayer subsidy? Yep, Group 1 — receiving over $15 million in political welfare in 2016 and totaling over $100 million over the last 15 years.

Independent candidates and convention parties pay out of their own pockets the cost of holding nominating conventions or gathering signatures. Because of the short time frames allowed for collecting signatures, a successful petition drive is nearly impossible without paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to professional petitioners.

But the two primary parties are given your money to fund their candidate-selection process. From 2001-2016 Texas taxpayers paid more than $100 million dollars to the Republican and Democratic parties to administer primary elections.

If you’re among the 22 percent of Texas’ voting age population that participated in the 2016 primaries, perhaps you got your money’s worth. But what about the 78 percent of you who chose not to participate? Well, you paid anyway!

My view is that nominations by political parties are private matters independent of the interests of the state.

The Texas Voter Choice Act, introduced as House Bill 3068 in the Texas Legislature in 2017, would have at least helped to level the playing field. Though the bill got a hearing from the House Elections Committee, the panel did not vote on the measure, leaving it to die. Expect a similar proposal to be considered again by the Texas Legislature in 2019.

All the provisions in HB 3068, save one, would have cost taxpayers zero dollars. The proposal would have eliminated needless regulations that restrict voter choice, establish reasonable petitioning requirements, and impose fairer ballot retention requirements for convention parties.

The sole provision in HB 3068 that would have required taxpayer funding is one that would modernize petitioning procedures through the implementation of secure, web-based technologies now commonly used for commercial transactions. Texas’ current petitioning statutes, established in 1903, obviously need to be modernized.

Texas’ Legislative Budget Board estimated that such a system would incur only nominal expense. A similar system was implemented in Arizona, where it was deemed to be cost-neutral. But whatever the case, the miniscule amount of money for this system is a far cry from the many millions currently being spent to support major party primaries.

Online petitioning clearly benefits independent candidates and political parties seeking ballot access. But the system could also be used by poorly-funded candidates seeking nominations from the primary parties by gathering petitions in lieu of paying a filing fee. Having an online system for collecting signatures would actually prevent petition fraud such as that currently being alleged in a Tarrant County judicial race.

The taxpayer subsidy of the Republican and Democratic parties is not likely to go away. But we can at least give our upstart political mavericks and wildcatters a fighting chance with Texas voters.

Mark Miller

Texans for Voter Choice